Oil Drilling Setbacks: CA Can Move From Laggard to Leader

Oil wells in Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles County

When it comes to taking care of our own health, most of us are pretty attuned to emerging scientific data, and willing to act on it to protect ourselves. If testing of samples of romaine lettuce on the market shows that it’s contaminated with deadly bacteria, we’ll stop eating it, rather than munching away while waiting for more data. If we have a life-threatening illness, we’ll take a drug based on a few solid studies that show it works, rather than waiting for a couple dozen more to materialize while we get sicker. And, of course, we’re now taking steps to protect ourselves from a dangerous virus, even though our scientific understanding of it is still evolving.

We should be no less cautious where it comes to the health of the millions of Californians who live near oil and gas wells—which is why we need to be establishing setback buffers from those operations now. In the last decade, a veritable pile of studies has accumulated that show significantly elevated health risk in proximity to drilling operations. We’ve gone from knowing not much about the human health impacts of wells back in the early 2000’s, when US production volumes were ramping up, to now having more than two dozen peer-reviewed studies showing, again and again, that living near wells risks some potentially serious health consequences.

A recently published summary of peer-reviewed studies by the non-profit research institute PSE Healthy Energy documents these risks. They include, among others, risk of poor pregnancy outcomes (birth defects, preterm birth, and fetal death), cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, asthma exacerbation, and health problems associated with constant loud noise. In many cases, the risk was associated with air pollution from drilling operations, particularly petroleum-related air toxics like benzene, toluene, and xylene.

It’s all there for anyone to see. Yet California—like the hypothetical guy munching the potentially contaminated lettuce—has been dangerously slow on the draw. At this point, a number of oil and gas producing states, and many more local producing regions, require setback buffers from sensitive receptors such as homes, schools, and hospitals. Colorado requires a 1,000 foot setback from high occupancy buildings (such as schools, day care centers, hospitals, and nursing homes); Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Illinois require 500 foot setbacks from certain occupied locations; Texas requires a 467 foot setback from property lines; and various local governments in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico require setbacks ranging from 600 to 1,500 feet. 

California, meanwhile has no statewide setback requirement, and very limited local setbacks. Kern County, where between 70 and 80 percent of the state’s drilling occurs, passed an ordinance in 2015 requiring 210 foot setback buffers (which a court has now invalidated based on a finding that the County’s environmental review of the ordinance was inadequate). A few California municipalities also have minimal setback requirements (e.g., 300-foot setbacks in Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Arvin, and Signal Hill), and LA County has proposed a 500-foot setback for its unincorporated areas. But that’s about it. So much, it seems, for the California oil industry canard that the state has the “toughest environmental standards in the world.” 

None of this is to say that the setbacks established in other states are adequate to protect public health. They’re not. The California Council on Science and Technology’s (CCST) study of fracking health risks mandated by SB 4, California’s 2013 fracking law, found that “the most significant exposures to toxic air contaminants” occur within a half-mile of well operations, and recommended consideration of setbacks. The PSE Healthy Energy study and other compilations of the health literature reference findings of health risk even for people living a mile or more away from drilling operations; and even more frequently within a half-mile (2,640 feet). 

So California finds itself in the sorry position of lagging behind states who are not doing nearly enough. Fortunately, there is reason for optimism that California may be poised to go from laggard to leader in this area. Last fall, the California Department of Conservation announced that it was commencing a broad regulatory reform effort—and zeroed in specifically on the issue of setbacks. The Department’s Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) is now conducting pre-rulemaking listening sessions, many of which have been dominated by members of the public calling for establishment of setbacks.

Additionally, Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi’s setback bill, AB 345, passed the Assembly in January, and is now being considered in the Senate. The bill, sponsored by the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, would work in tandem with CalGEM’s ongoing regulatory effort by requiring promulgation of a setback provision; and further requiring that CalGEM closely evaluate making that setback 2,500 feet. Californians can go to this link to ask their senator to support AB 345.

The oil industry is no doubt gearing up to try to defeat these efforts—having just recently dumped $40 million into defeating a Colorado ballot initiative for a 2,500 foot setback. But the naysayers don’t have the facts on their side. 

Some have noted that the studies showing health risk in proximity to drilling operations were mostly done outside California. While this is not an invalid point—California has different air quality regulations in place and a different mix of drilling types than some of the locations studied – it ultimately changes very little. Both the CCST report and the PSE Healthy Energy literature review were California-focused, and considered specifically the question of whether the out-of-state health studies are relevant here. The CCST report acknowledged that differing circumstances among the states might affect applicability, but also observed that the types of hazards addressed in the out-of-state studies exist in California as well. The PSE Healthy Energy study took the analysis a step further and unpacked the similarities and differences in the various states’ circumstances—looking at factors like regional geology, drilling methods, and regulations—and provided bases to support the relevance of the health studies to California.

In fact, the both the CCST and PSE reports identified an additional risk factor in California as compared to Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas, which is that in the LA area, the population density around oil and gas wells is much higher. This means that that the “intake fraction” of air emissions - the amount that people actually breath in - is higher as well. Add to this the fact that in California the big majority of oil production takes place in low income communities and communities of color, and communities that are already disproportionately hammered by industrial pollution, and it starts to become clear that health-protective setbacks are essential in our state. 

A pernicious argument has also surfaced that, essentially, people living near wells deserve what they get for choosing to move where the oil fields are. This reasoning reflects not only a stunning lack of a clue as to just how little choice non-privileged Californians have in affordable places to live, but also ignores the very recent provenance of the studies documenting the drilling-related health risk associations, most of which emerged in the last five years. Even if someone voluntarily signed up for industrial blight a couple decades ago, it doesn’t mean they signed up for birth defects and cancer, or the increased COVID-19 risk that may accompany pollution from oil production.

It’s time for the procrastination and excuses to end, and for California officials to apply the golden rule of policymaking: treating our state’s most vulnerable residents with the same care as we treat ourselves. When our health is at stake, we believe the science and act on it. The millions of Californians breathing the polluted air near our oilfields deserve no less.

About the Authors

Ann Alexander

Senior Attorney, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.